The Ultimate Guide To Communicating With Employees During a Crisis

The Ultimate Guide To Communicating With Employees During a Crisis

Handling a crisis is never easy. I don’t care who you are, even if you’re a crisis management expert, a crisis in your company is always going to take its toll–on you and your employees.

But how you react and the way you talk to people when the stakes are high and emotions are heightened REALLY matters. Ultimately, the way management handles a crisis impacts how quickly and effectively the company overcomes the problem.

So let’s dig deep into the topic of crisis resolution and management.

You’re in the middle of a crisis: now is the time to pause

I know. The words crisis and pause don’t quite go together, do they? However, I’ve worked with many companies during a time of crisis, and I’ve found the worst thing that you can do is lurch into trying to fix it.

Of course, I understand why this happens–you’re worried about your company’s revenue and reputation. It’s all hands on deck, and you must fix whatever it is and fast.

But the most impactful thing you can do right now is stop, take a step back and think. You need to ensure you do the right thing for your employees, customers and wider stakeholders.

That all starts by communicating clearly, with understanding and empathy for everyone inside your organisation who has been impacted.

Your actions as a leader in the company will be felt by everyone in the company. So your response must be calm, measured and appropriate.

So give yourself permission to take a breath for a second and just consider:

  • How people in the company might feel
  • How can you help them feel at ease?
  • The best ways to communicate with the wider team
  • How you’re going to communicate your next steps
  • How you’ll provide support to employees who need it

Start considering these questions before doing anything else (write down the answers, too), and I promise you, you’ll instantly start to feel more at ease and confident when it comes to communicating with your employees during a crisis.

Business team in a crisis meeting

You’re far from alone: examples of company crises

The first thing to remember when you’re facing a crisis: you are not alone.

I’ve worked with many companies during a crisis, and the leadership team, in particular, can feel extremely lonely when a crisis hits.

Sometimes people think they’re the only ones to experience this, or they feel embarrassed this has happened.

Please don’t. You are far from alone when it comes to a company crisis. There have been many before, and they’ll be many again.

The important thing now is how you handle the crisis, so try not to focus too much on it happening.

However, I also know how helpful it is to see examples of other companies handling a crisis.

To give you a better idea of the types of crises I’m referring to, let’s look at the types of situations I’ve helped clients with by using famous examples that made the press (these are just examples, not companies I’ve worked with personally).

We can learn a lot from how others respond to a crisis.

Examples of company crises

1. Product recalls

This happens when a company’s product is recalled due to safety concerns. A product recall has huge implications for an organisation. You have to take into account the financial impact on the bottom line, of course. But you often also have significant repercussions on the reputation of the brand.

The impact of product recalls on staff

Depending on the severity of the safety concerns, product recalls can also have a significant impact on staff.

In cases like this, you’ll need to communicate clearly with employees about the situation. Discuss what happened, why it happened, and the steps you’re going to take to address the issue. Ultimately, let your staff know that you’re taking this problem seriously. Of course, you’ll also want to make sure that you address any differences to the day-to-day operations of the company that may affect them too.

Example of a famous product recall

A good example of this is Samsung. In 2016, they initiated a recall of the first version of their Note 7 due to faulty batteries that overheated and exploded. With 2 million devices recalled all over the world, the product was then discontinued. And according to this source, the recall cost the company in the region of $5.3 billion.

While you can call this a crisis of massive proportions, as a company, Samsung learnt from this. As a result of the recall, for example, they considerably increased and improved their testing processes. This resulted in better devices for the end consumer and an overall improvement in industry safety standards. So with the right attitude and behaviours, you can still achieve positive outcomes despite the crisis you’re facing.

2. Financial challenges

If a company is facing financial challenges, such as declining revenues or layoffs, the leadership team must communicate with employees about the situation. What steps is the company taking to address the issue? Are employees’ jobs or benefits impacted? And if so, how?

The impact of financial challenges on staff

This is a crisis your staff really are going to feel. They may be worried, stressed or anxious about their jobs, their future and their families.

This is a time when you need to communicate with compassion and clarity. If you do need to make staff redundant, explain how you’ll do this, and when and put plans in place to help support those who will be made redundant (and those who won’t be too).

Try to do everything you can for staff who are made redundant. Some companies have provided excellent references, LinkedIn recommendations, and even training that help staff find new careers. And use your network to find staff other opportunities too.

The way you help staff now will show your future staff that you really do care.

Example of a financial challenge crisis

An example of this comes from Airbnb. In 2020, they had to cut 25% of their workforce due to the suspension of travel because of the global pandemic. In this message from co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky, he clearly communicated how and why the company had come to this difficult decision.

After reinforcing the message that Airbnb would hone in on its core values, Chesky went on to explain the process for making reductions. He also clarified the severance process and the impact on equity and healthcare and even talked about ways in which the organisation would support employees in finding new opportunities for work. This is a great example of a company being upfront and transparent in the face of a crisis.

I particularly agree with his point here, ‘Wait to communicate any decisions until all details are landed — transparency of only partial information can make matters worse.’ When employees receive partial information, it can (understandably) make them more stressed and anxious.

3. Data breaches

During a data breach or security hack, confidential, sensitive, or protected information is exposed. When sensitive data is leaked, employees must be kept informed about the steps that the company is going to take to address the breach. This is especially true if there’s an impact on staff’s personal information too.

The impact of data breaches on staff

Data breaches can have a significant impact on staff because, well, firstly, it may be their data that’s been breached. An example of this included a recent data breach involving Morrison’s staff.

Just like you would with your customers, make sure if you suffer from a data breach that you remain honest, open and give timely updates to the breach, the amount of data and what data was stolen.

Most people understand that data breaches are the last thing any company wants. They won’t blame you for the breach, but equally won’t be happy if they don’t receive honest communication.

An example of corporate data breaches

This article shows a few examples of big companies handling the loss of significant amounts of data and taking proactive steps to deal with the situation.

For example, following a data breach in 2009, the company Heartland Payment Systems also took the opportunity to educate consumers – something that wasn’t at all common at the time.

Another good example is provided by Target, which was hit by hacks in 2013 – together with other retailers. Unlike others, Target responded by informing their consumers quickly and proactively instead of waiting months to expose the issue.

4. Public relations crisis

A public relations crisis (or PR crisis) occurs when a negative event or review about a company makes its way to the public sphere. Examples of PR crises are negative media coverage, boycotts, or social media backlash, for example.

How do public relations crises impact employees?

Again, communication with employees here is key (you can probably notice a trend by now!) How is the company responding? Are there any potential impacts on the organisation’s reputation or operations?

If your employees are getting asked questions about the PR crisis, do they know how to respond? Do they feel confident themselves to communicate the company’s response? Because if you have customer-facing staff and a PR crisis, it’s not just marketing, comms, PR and leadership teams that need to communicate on behalf of the company, it’s customer service too.

An example of a PR crisis for a big company

This article has some interesting examples of how famous enterprises such as KFC, Starbucks, and Southwest Airlines dealt with their own respective PR crises and recovered from them. When KFC embarrassingly ran out of chicken in all their restaurants, for example, they rolled out funny and self-deprecating ads in the newspapers owning up to their mistake and provided an online service to customers to let them check when chicken would be in stock again.

These examples teach us that oftentimes, a crisis cannot be avoided. But what matters (and what consumers and employees will remember) is how the company communicates throughout the situation and how they deal with it.

Why prioritise employee communication just as much as customer/investor communication?

When a crisis hits, it’s understandable that the first thing executives will think about is the impact on revenue. That makes sense as, without sales, the company can’t survive. And if you have investors or shareholders, you definitely need to keep them in the loop.

Sometimes hiring an external PR firm (unless you have a specific department in-house) is the best solution. They will help you answer any media questions, prepare well-crafted statements, and provide media training to key staff.

But, as highlighted in the examples above, you should also prioritise employee communication. And here’s why:

  1. Company Culture. A strong company culture is built on effective communication, and it needs to work both ways. Your employees need to feel comfortable enough to communicate openly with management and executives. But the leadership team also needs to keep staff informed and involved, especially in difficult situations.
  2. Staff turnover. A crisis can create uncertainty and cause employees to lose trust and confidence in the brand. That’s why the way the crisis is managed and handled is key – reassuring your staff can mean the difference between losing valuable personnel and retaining staff with a renewed sense of pride and belonging to the company.
  3. Customer experience. When a crisis impacts end customers (and in the above examples, we’ve seen how that’s often the case), it’s important that everyone shares the same voice. It goes without saying that your customer-facing employees will need to know how to handle any questions or complaints. But this is true for everyone working in the company because once a crisis hits the public domain, it’s natural for people to talk about it. And you want your employees to know how to respond. This will, in turn, build trust and confidence in your brand.

How do you communicate with employees during a crisis?

Team meeting during a crisis, people gathered around a table talking.

Pre-crisis communication

This may sound counterintuitive when a crisis is, by definition, an unexpected event. But you can (and should) prepare for a crisis. Because when the worst happens, the last thing you want is to be found unprepared and give in to panic. This is why planning in advance and investing in crisis management training can help.

For example, you’ll want to establish a clear communication plan in advance that identifies the key personnel responsible for communication. Who will be liaising with the press or with the key shareholders? How will you communicate to the end consumers, if relevant? And how and when will you talk to your own employees?

A key step that people often overlook is to make sure the contact information you hold for your employees is accurate and up-to-date. You’ll also want to train employees on any specific crisis management procedures. For example, what would happen in case of a data breach? Are there any specific processes you want people to follow?

During a crisis

As we’ve already explained, during a crisis, communication is key. So think about keeping your staff, stakeholders, and end customers informed and doing so early and often. Much like in the Target example above, don’t wait months to announce a data breach – the sooner, the better. It means everyone knows where they stand and can take appropriate action to protect themselves.

It’s also why being honest and transparent from the start is always the best policy. When something unexpected happens that has a negative impact on your brand; there’s no point in brushing the issue under the carpet. Own up to it – ultimately, everyone involved and impacted will appreciate you being upfront and taking responsibility for the way forward.

As the crisis unfolds, ensure you provide regular updates on how the company is responding to it. What measures are you taking? Are you introducing stricter testing or additional processes like Samsung did after the Note 7 fiasco? When customers and employees have questions, answer them honestly and promptly. The last thing you want to do is to leave people in limbo – not knowing where they stand, how they’re impacted, or what they should do next. Much like in the Airbnb example, can you identify next steps? Can management help?

We are lucky we live in an extremely connected world where communication is made easy and available through multiple channels – email, phone, text, video conferencing, etc. You really have no excuse not to keep your staff in the loop! And remember – this is a crisis, after all. So keep the tone of the communication calm and reassuring. As we know, it’s not just what we say, but also how we say it that makes a difference.

And if your employees need additional support, go out of your way to provide it. If you’ve done your due diligence and prepared for a crisis in advance, you’ll probably have resources readily available. Things like mental health support, financial assistance, individualised support, specific training where needed, etc.

Woman speaking to employees as they sit round a table.

Why you shouldn’t jump into crisis training straight away

If you encounter a crisis, you may be tempted to dive right into investing in staff training, particularly after bad press or public backlash.

Many companies, for example, will ensure their staff undertake mandatory equality and diversity training if said company has been accused of a lack of inclusivity. Or leadership training if the company has been accused of an internal culture crisis, such as bullying from management teams.

I am not for one second saying this training isn’t highly valuable. However, many companies are rolling out training amongst their staff before they even understand where people are at. They haven’t listened to staff, worked to understand the impact the crisis has had on them or asked what they feel they need from here. When companies do this, it can feel to staff like management is ‘ticking a box’ rather than doing the right thing by their workforce.

It’s my firm belief that companies ought to put responsible, considered and robust mechanisms in place for internal communication at every level if there’s a crisis. This involves pausing and finding out how the entire workforce has been impacted, what their views are and what exact problems they face. This needs careful facilitating to ensure it’s forward-moving and productive. Handled well, it IS an opportunity for your teams to be seen, heard, and valued as part of the bigger conversation. It’s NOT opening the floodgates for an unhelpful whinge fest.

So pause and listen first.

Diving into training without understanding the problem is like asking for medication without seeing a doctor–you need to understand the problem before you implement the right solution.

Are you looking for crisis management training for the leaders in your organisation?

With the right training and implementation, crisis management can make all the difference to the reputation of your brand and how you recover (not only financially) from a bad situation. In fact, as we’ve seen in the above examples, a crisis can be an opportunity for growth and further development. But only if you know how to handle it in the best possible way!

If you or your organisation would like to invest in crisis management skills or get some help to improve your overall communication, check out my services. Or drop me a line, and let’s chat some more.

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